Bangladesh: playing the long game

Greedy parties and fickle voters delay the advent of a healthy democracy.

Michael Jacob
20 March 2014
Some young people look cheerful after playing with powder dyes on the occasion of Holi festival at Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka

Holi Festival at the Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2014. Demotix/Sony Ramany. All rights reserved.This week, Hindu communities across Bangladesh celebrated the spring festival of Holi. Their songs and dances could have provoked rioting in a country acutely sensitive to religious identity. Instead, the country’s Muslim majority greeted the festivities equably, some even joining in.

Such displays of unity are not unprecedented in Bangladeshi history. Forty years ago, they led to the declaration of this young nation’s independence, and to this day they remain common throughout the armed forces and on the cricket field. Just two months ago, Bangladesh peacefully hosted millions of pilgrims for Bishwa Ijtema – the largest gathering in the Muslim world after the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Mobs in Dhaka who, weeks before, had been lynching supporters of radical Islam maintained a discreet silence throughout the celebrations. These are promising signs for the potential of peace and social cohesion. Unfortunately, they remain interludes in a cycle of politicized calumny and bloodshed.

Earlier this year, clashes resumed between the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League, following a national election boycotted by the BNP-led opposition. The party had called in October for the incumbent Awami League to pass power over to a neutral caretaker government to oversee the vote. As the demands went ignored, the election campaign descended into a series of violent strikes, claiming the lives of 150 people and ending in a 48-hour mass demonstration which forced the Election Commission to close 500 voting centres on account of violence, intimidation and arson.

With over half the country's parliamentary seats left uncontested and a record low turnout, the Awami League has since retained power on a paper-thin mandate. So peaceful gatherings for Holi and Bishwa Ijtema offer hope but the greed and short sightedness of its politics suggest that hope may not be enough.

Why care?

Over the past decade, the gross domestic product of Bangladesh has grown steadily at 6% a year, into the 59th largest in the world. The country has built a world-leading textile industry and, according to Goldman Sachs, could even become a prominent economy in the twenty first century. But these forecasts rely on a political stability which is fraying by the day.

International security is also at stake. Bangladesh is a nominally secular state whose people have traditionally espoused moderate religious views, and who fight to this day for a functioning democracy. But local resentment at inequality, corruption and the incessant feuding between the country's leaders are proving fertile ground for radical Islam. Should Bangladeshis grow tired of the antics of their democratic candidates, there are harder-line alternatives to choose from.

Why these problems?

The leaders of Bangladesh understand these dangers, but the paths that might avoid them are treacherous. The electorate is divided on matters of national identity and the place of Islam in society. The Awami League generally appeals to more liberal reformers, while emerging strands of religious conservatism tend to vote for the BNP, or its more militant allies. However, the reasons behind the volatility of Bangladeshis on matters of faith may run deeper than the divide itself. Although global trade has generally improved living standards, it has also concentrated previously unimaginable wealth within view of many, but often out of their reach. Social cohesion suffers from rampant nepotism and corruption. Transparency International ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world in 2005, leaving locals with little faith in the independence of their democratic institutions.

These problems were laid bare in demonstrations last year over sentences handed down by the country's International Crimes Tribunal. Bangladesh is still coming to terms with the atrocities perpetrated during its war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. The incumbent Awami League established the tribunal to bring surviving war criminals to justice. Although the move was initially popular, signs of political meddling soon outraged the BNP and its allies who felt victimized by the verdicts. Rather than address the matter through the courts, the BNP orchestrated a series of mass strikes that paralyzed the economy and polarized the public. Supporters of the trials responded in like measure, and the ensuing violence claimed hundreds of lives even before the national election debacle began.

A plague on both houses

Today, the bickering between the two parties has reached a point where dialogue has become impossible. The BNP-led opposition accuses the incumbent government of out-living its legitimacy. It is not alone in questioning the success of the January election. The US Department of State has described the poll as “disappointing” and the High Representative of the European Union regretted that “the people of Bangladesh were not given an opportunity to express fully their democratic choice”. The BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, blames the Awami League for these shortcomings. She also described recent government measures to arrest political opponents, call in the army and muzzle contentious newspapers, as a “political coup in installments.”

To the misfortune of the Bangladeshi people, the actions of her party do not always reflect her rhetoric. The BNP's series of demonstrations have taken politics from the parliament to the streets. These displays of force have repeatedly ended in bloodshed, discrediting calls for conciliatory dialogue and testing the line between freedom of assembly and coercion. The heavy-handed security forces decried by Ms Zia would be in their barracks were it not for the civil unrest which her party has stirred up. And for all the rhetoric on the inadequacies of the January election, the main flaw lamented by the diplomatic community was that her party boycotted it.

Over the past five years, the BNP has missed an opportunity to reforge itself as a constructive, competent, opposition party. It could have helped keep new legislation in line with the will of the Bangladeshi masses, filtering through overdue reforms on matters ranging from the upgrade of building safety standards to climate change adaptation policies. Most importantly, it could have offered voters a credible alternative in the elections held this January. Instead, the BNP has blocked government action wherever it could, pandered to old grudges, and thrown tantrums to obtain what it wanted. It has run with democracy as long as the system held some prospect of power, and subverted it whenever the opportunity waned. 

There has been a curious symmetry in how the two rival parties of Bangadesh have simultaneously eroded the country's democratic institutions. The Awami League has dragged its feet on fair elections out of fear that it may lose them, just as the BNP torpedoed them when it thought its rival could win. Awami League security forces opened fire on demonstrators shortly after BNP hooligans unleashed Molotov-cocktails on the streets of Dhaka.

The root of the problem

The main danger for stability in Bangladesh is that the electorate continues to confuse personal opinions with democratic rights. The fallacy which their leaders prey on is a widespread belief that democracy confers the right to win. Patience and compromise have gained little support in a country where voters have rarely backed a party throughout its mandate. Bangladeshis have yet to see the advantages of conferring power on the largest rather than the loudest group, or of confining the government within national laws and a constitution. But the real challenge of the system lies precisely in gaining that trust. Democracy relies less on each party's skill at arrogating control, than on its grace in ceding it. Until Bangladeshi voters, and the leaders which they vote for, show that they are ready to accept the possibility of defeat, the system can offer little more than the violent farce that has plagued the streets of Dhaka for the past decades. And as the rising death count suggests, the longer the two main parties of Bangladesh put the interests of their supporters before those of the majority, the less of a country they will have left to fight over.

Bangladeshis are realizing that taking sides in this endless feud has so far yielded negative results. The foreign investment and infrastructural development which might improve their fate requires stability – a prize neither the BNP nor the Awami League has yet proven capable of providing. But the reason so many continue to endorse, even fight to defend, their current incompetent rulers is that they have yet to see a better alternative. In the first twenty years of Bangladesh's independence, administrations tended to end in military coups and political assassinations. The drama has come down a notch since the 1990s, but it would be a stretch to call Bangladesh a healthy democracy.

Power has rocked back and forth between the Awami League and the BNP with each election for over two decades now. Both parties have kept the same capricious leaders (each related to a ruler from the previous political era), neither has ever won a second term, and both have undone the work of their predecessor on re-entering office. In four successive administrations, the opposition has systematically boycotted elections, contested results, stormed out of Parliament and paralyzed the country with mass demonstrations in attempts to return to power. The alarming observation is that this approach has generally worked.


The situation in Bangladesh is tragic but by no means unique. In recent months, opposition parties in Cambodia, Malaysia and Nepal have contested the outcome of general elections. In Thailand, the opposition boycotted the elections last month and attempted to block voting centers. Further west, Ukrainian and Egyptian protesters have been up in arms against their leaders, disputing the streets of their capitals with tear gas, improvised explosives and live ammunition. If anything, weak state institutions, abrupt swings in popular opinion and violent breakdowns of law and order are the norm in emerging democracies. But perhaps one oddity in Bangladesh is that the country can still welcome millions of civilians from either side of the political divide to congregate and pray in peace. There is a wasted opportunity in this land, and the stakes are too high to ignore it.

The people of Bangladesh have comparatively few causes dividing them beyond their national brand of skin-deep politics. They share a tragic history, the same shackles of poverty, and 90% of them are Muslim. Sport and prayer suggest that their affinities run deeper than the resentment which recent political tribulations are entrenching. If differences can be set aside for religious ceremonies or the T20 World Cup, perhaps they can be shelved more generally in the interest of Bangladesh.

Arguably, the largest advantage Bangladesh enjoys over other countries struggling to implement democratic reform is that it stands to gain from them financially. The privilege of most western democracies is not so much that voters are mature, but they are moneyed. They are unlikely to gamble their share in the existing social order for the unproven benefits of a revolution. Provided some degree of peace and stability can be maintained in Bangladesh, its growing economy will continue to lift millions of citizens out of destitution, dampening the enthusiasm for overthrowing governments. As the numbers of this budding middle class grow, the political center of Bangladesh may finally find its voice.

This strategy is frustratingly long-term for a country where contentions are already testing social resilience to dangerous limits. But it shifts what has remained for decades an immovable problem to a manageable one. It is not imperative that today's inept leaders of Bangladesh right all wrongs. So long as they can keep the country from imploding, time and the Bangladeshi people should do the rest.

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